Last Updated August 21, 2023.
Du Bois explains that his book is intended to demonstrate what it means to be Black at the beginning of the twentieth century. It will show the world in which Black Americans live, what Emancipation meant to them, and how the color line continues to divide society. It explores the "Veil" between the Black world and the white world and explains how Black people experience religion and spirituality, as well as how they have struggled in poverty.
Du Bois notes that some of these essays have been published before and that each chapter will begin with a bar from the Sorrow Songs. He adds that he himself is Black.
When white people delicately say things to Du Bois about other Black people they know, or about their feelings on "Southern outrages," what Du Bois really hears is: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Du Bois recalls the first time he realized he was a "problem," when, as a child, one new girl at his school refused to take a visiting card from him. At this, he recognized that he was different from the other children—there was a veil between him and them. At first, he decided simply to disdain this veil and revel in beating his friends in exams or in foot races, but over time, he realized they had opportunities he would never have. He considered how to take the opportunities from them, but he could not think of an answer. Other Black boys felt still more resigned and unhappy with the fact that they had been made strangers in their own homes.
To be an American Black person is to be two things at once, always conscious of the "twoness" of being both American and Black. Black Americans have always wanted to merge their two selves together without losing either self, wanting to keep their Black history and soul while also being recognized as an American and having American opportunities. Black Americans want to be allowed to use their power and skill, but since Emancipation, they have struggled because their double aims contradict each other.
If a Black artisan is struggling both to escape white contempt for his skills and also to help bring his people out of poverty, he will be torn in two and will be a poor craftsman. It is impossible to reconcile two irreconcilable worlds, and this has often made Black Americans feel ashamed of themselves.
Black Americans have been supposedly "free" for many years, and yet the social problem remains. Freedom does not really exist, because Black Americans remain disappointed. The Ku-Klux Klan, carpetbaggers, and contradictory advice all meant that formerly enslaved people were unsure of where to turn. At first, they tried to vote themselves into power and then embarked upon book learning, striving toward a new horizon by moving away from ignorance. However, even while Black people struggled to learn and escape ignorance, they found themselves coming up against enormous prejudice that mocked their efforts. Meanwhile, the nation saw this struggle and suggested that Black men could never be what they were trying to become: instead, they should remain content to be servants and disregard their desire to vote and be equal.
Black ideals of the past—physical freedom, political power, and improved training—have all been crushed because they have not been properly welded together. Black Americans now need schools more than ever; they need to train and work together in order to integrate themselves more fully into an American nation that would actually be richer if it accepted Black virtues.
Black Americans are facing an almost...
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impossible challenge, but they continue to strive because they believe in themselves, in human opportunity, and in the ideals of the American republic.
In order to understand the current situation in the United States, Du Bois says, it is necessary first to explore the period immediately following the American Civil War, which Du Bois suggests was entirely around the question of enslavement, regardless of what was argued at the time. While the president and Congress were determined that the war had other causes, numerous enslaved people fled from the South to the North, and their appearance created significant confusion and difficulties for Northern forces, who did not know whether to treat them as people or as property.
After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, calls were issued for Black men to join the Northern forces. The Freedman's Bureau was born due to uncertainty as to how newly freed enslaved people should be treated: should those who could not fight be fed?
The Freedmen's Bureau set about establishing schools and banks that Black people in the South could use while considerable amounts of money and other materials were sent to the South in support of enslaved people. However, the situation in the South for the newly freed enslaved people was economically untenable, with many former enslaved people still working essentially for nothing. While Abraham Lincoln originally determined to give each freed enslaved person a portion of land, these plans were overly ambitious and poorly executed.
In 1865, after the official establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, an attempt was made to provide each freed enslaved person with forty acres of land, alongside money, clothes, and food. However, this only served to establish a difficult relationship between the freed Black people and the state, which was now responsible for them as their former masters had been. At the same time, because the Bureau was forced to seize others' land in order to have land to redistribute, tensions between Blacks and whites in the South escalated, although the Bureau did contribute to education, the legal system in the South, and tax-collecting.
Ultimately, Black people in the South did not receive the "forty acres and a mule" they were promised. While significant amounts of money were spent on education, and a number of Black colleges and universities were founded with this money, the Bureau was not able to administer justice in a way that struck a balance in the South. Where Bureau courts punished whites harshly, this resulted in lynchings, rapes, and beatings from the angry white community. The prejudices of the former slavemasters in the South were stoked rather than calmed by the behavior of the Bureau, and their opposition to its mere existence made it difficult for the Bureau to achieve very much.
As Du Bois argues, despite the efforts of the Bureau, Black people in America are still not free: the Bureau failed to achieve what it tried to, and many Black people in the South live lives not dissimilar to those their ancestors did under enslavement.
In the opening chapters of this book, Du Bois seeks to establish the unique position in which Black Americans find themselves at the time of writing. He is very clear about the fact that he is expressing his own experience, but also an experience common to most Black Americans, which white people cannot understand. Du Bois in these chapters sets out his idea of the "color-line" as the true problem facing American society while also describing the duality with which Black Americans struggle as they try to resolve their twin identities of being Black and being American.
Du Bois wants to make clear to the reader that the problem of the modern Black American cannot be understood without an understanding of Black history. As such, he sets out to summarize the issues caused during the Reconstruction period, which failed to deliver on the promises it made to free enslaved people. Du Bois comments strikingly that, as a Black man in America, he feels that he is "a problem": by explaining the situation in which Black Americans found themselves in the antebellum South, Du Bois is able to demonstrate how far this has been true since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.